What is Lymphatic Drainage? An Interview with Body and Soul's Jessica Martin


Lymphatic drainage might not sound too pleasant, but it is actually a known and accredited  massage technique that is great at helping to detoxify the body. We interviewed Jessica Martin, a lymphatic drainage practitioner at the Body and Soul clinic in Shanghai, to ask her to explain the benefits of undergoing lymphatic drainage, just what exactly it is, and why detoxifying is particularly important in a city like ours.


So to start off with, what exactly is lymphatic drainage?
To answer that question you first need to understand what the lymph system is; it’s kind of the neglected sibling of the blood system. We can’t see lymph fluid, but it’s extremely important for detoxing. Actually, it is to our body what the waste disposal/recycling system, the canalisation and the police is to a city. It is part of the immune system, it produces immune system cells, which fight infections, and it takes care of water retention and of the disposal of dead cells and toxins. The lymph vessels of the arms and legs are near the surface of the skin. So what we mean when we say drainage is actually a massage technique to help to ease the flow of lymph fluid through the system. If you can spot many prominent veins on your extremities, if you get sick easily, or if you’re prone to swelling, those are usually signs of problems in the lymph system, and lymphatic drainage is a form of treatment.


And what are the specific benefits of lymphatic drainage?
The main purpose is to reduce swelling after surgery or vein problems, but also to improve lymph flow. By doing this, it builds up the immune system, especially in regard to chronic symptoms, and can work against the buildup of toxins in the surrounding skin tissue. Of course, all this should be in combination with the right movement, nutrition and other outside sources, but drainage can contribute a lot to the healing process. We use it as an “immune boost”, e.g for people after long sickness.


So where did you do your training in lymphatic drainage?
In the North West of Germany. To certify you already have to be a trained physical therapist. After that I did four weeks of additional specific training.


What made you interested in the practice originally?
Usually you only come across the lymph system when it’s swollen or you’re sick, but the more you learn about sickness in general the you become aware of it. For a long time there was a big focus on the blood system, but sickness actually materializes in the lymph system first. If you talk to GPs, they’ll tell you that more research has to be done aside from very obvious cases, like cancer for example. It is an elaborate matter as we are finding out more and more about the lymph system. With that our perspective changes and increases our understanding of its importance. A similar case for instance are the appendix and tonsils. For a long time they were deemed as insignificant, and quickly removed when they were acting up. Now it seems that they are not only important inflammation alarm systems but also containing substantial substances crucial to the immune system. So maybe we should be more captious about having them removed. As science improves we become aware of the functions of things and how they interact with each other.


Is there a greater need for lymphatic drainage in a place like Shanghai?
Definitely. Aside from negative factors like tainted foods and polluted air, there is also the lifestyle, its fast pace. They all make it harder for the lymph system. I do not believe in express detox, you know, where you maybe go to party and then juice detox for a day or two. It should be a lifestyle. Our body is already detoxing for us. It’s a choice to help the body go against those negative factors. I admit in a place like Shanghai that is not an easy task. But it is starts as an attitude. Here in Shanghai, everything is convenient and expected to be quickly available. Yet you have to make an effort to be more selective in terms of food and activities. Medicines won’t really help if you don’t let your body heal, so you need to give it time to rest. I tell my patients that your body’s performance starts to decline starting in the mid-twenties, so you really do need to take time and heal.


So if the lymph system and lymphatic drainage are about taking care of toxins in the body, where exactly do the toxins come from?
I would make a distinction about the sources of toxins and the retention of toxins in the body. As already mentioned before first there are environmental toxins. In Shanghai we are quite exposed to pollution and common chemicals like solvents, pesticides or BPA. There are also lifestyle toxins also known as bad choices like smoking, too much sugar, overly processed foods, stimulants etc. As for the retention of toxins it all depends on the individual. If someone has a very strong lymph system, then they can compensate for things very well, whereas if you are sensitive to illness and get sick easily, then you are probably straining the lymph system. If that’s the case then you need be stricter with your nutritional intake and your lifestyle, and be aware of your environment in terms of things like air quality.


So then food is a big deal when it comes to detoxifying the body; are there any particular foods that should be eaten while undergoing the process?
It’s a huge thing, but also hard to pin down. We still don’t know completely how nutrition works in the body. What we do know is that it is hard for the lymph system to get along with processed food and excess protein. The lymph system takes on things that are too big for the blood system to transport, some gets stored in the lymph nodes. If they get overloaded, then whatever was in there can flow out into the rest of the body. It is harder for sick people to process protein and it can strain the lymph system. Same with processed foods, the body cannot handle the artificial stuff well, and it ends up being taken on by the lymph system and straining it.


Is there a particular time of year when focusing on detoxifying and the lymph system is particularly important?
I wouldn’t want to generalize. Again it really depends on the individual. Some people who struggle in hot weather have a tendency toward swelling. Other people find things tricky in the winter months with things like colds, which is actually less a matter of temperature, but has more to do with stressors which weaken the body, as well as viruses and bacteria. Finally there are also people who are more sensitive to the changes in seasons. So it really does depend on your own set of issues.


Finally, what other preventative measures can be taken to help the process along?
One main thing is fighting stress, though it is very hard to pin down ‘bad’ stress. There is a big psychological factor. People might feel better when distracted, or people might have trouble just being by themselves and resting. It’s really about just being able to calm down and the lymph massage is good for that, as the desired side-effects are calming and slowing the nerve system. Relaxation is a purpose of the massage as well as activating the lymph system, because that in itself can really help.